In the spirit of the new Avengers this week, New York Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton should take advice from the movie’s villain.
This is an exciting week if you’re a fan of hockey and/or comic book movies. The NHL showcased two Game 7s on Tuesday night, one more on Wednesday, and tomorrow night, Marvel Studios releases Avengers: Endgame.
Each one of these series has been exciting and great to watch for the casual hockey fan. But there is one series, in particular, I want to talk about: Toronto vs. Boston.
Why do I bring up this series? The two teams emulate something for the New York Rangers. Blueshirts general manager Jeff Gorton should have been paying close attention to this one. One team demonstrates what the Blueshirts should aim for when rebuilding while the other shows what they should avoid.
Most critically, Gorton needs to take a page out of the book of Marvel’s biggest baddie, Thanos.
Spoiler Alert: The following material does contain spoilers from Avengers: Infinity War.
For those of you who are not familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe or don’t feel like sitting through 20-plus movies, all you need to know is this: Thanos, the main villain, views the universe as “unbalanced” because there are too many people and not enough resources. So he goes about it by trying to wipe out half its population to restore “balance.”
Now back to hockey.
The Bruins are solid on both ends of the ice. With 259 goals, they were only one goal shy of finishing in the top 10 in goals scored this season. They have a great topline in Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. On the back end, they were fourth in fewest goals allowed with 215. As Thanos would say, they are perfectly balanced, as all things should be.
The Leafs, on the other hand, don’t have balance. On the front end of the ice, the Leafs are phenomenal. With forwards like John Tavares and Auston Matthews among a solid, young core that has not reached its peak yet, Toronto scored the fourth most goals in the league, with 286.
However, on the backend on the ice, things are not so good for the Leafs. They finished in the middle of the pack in goals against this season, allowing 251 for the 13th most goals allowed. If Thanos looked at this team, it would remind him of his homeworld, Titan. If this unbalance goes unchecked, it will lead to the Leafs demise in the future, as it did this year, and as it did for Thanos’s planet.
Admittedly, this might not be the fairest comparison. They are still very young and have approximately $24 million in projected cap space this offseason. But if they don’t put more emphasis on the need for defense soon, their dreams of ending their Stanley Cup drought are going to die, as it did last night.
This is why Boston won game seven at home against Toronto. The Bruins have way more balance than the Leafs and that very well may have been the key difference in the series. Boston just has a stronger blueline with the likes of Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy and Torey Krug, among others. It also does not hurt to have Tuukka Rask in the net.
The Leafs defense, however, committed some bad turnovers and the Bruins made them pay for it.
Ironically enough, the two teams are evenly matched when they face each other. Last night was the third time in six years these two met in a Game 7. But you can attribute this to how well both teams know each other because they are division rivals.
Gorton should look at the Leafs-Bruins series and see just how crucial deploying a balanced lineup is for building an elite team. It might just be the difference maker in beating some of the league’s best offenses. In year two of the rebuild, the Rangers allowed the eighth-most goals in the league with 272, while sitting 23rd in goals scored with 227.
So I guess you can say, yes, the Rangers do have balance, but not the right type of balance. However, it does look like things are going to get much better on the front end of the ice.
Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider enjoyed career years, Vitali Kravtsov reportedly agreed to an entry-level contract and there’s the anticipated arrival of Kaapo Kakko with the second overall pick in this year’s draft—unless, the New Jersey Devils decide on Kakko; in that case, the Rangers will take Jack Hughes. You can’t go wrong with either one of them. With the offense anticipated to get stronger for the Rangers, they can’t let that distract them on the need for defense.
This does not mean the Blueshirts have been ignoring the back end. They drafted Igor Shestyorkin in preparation for the retirement of Henrik Lundqvist. Shestyorkin played well in the KHL and for team Russia and reportedly agreed to an entry-level contract along with Kravtsov. However, the future of the defense is still up in the air. They are very young at the moment and outside of K’Andre Miller and Ryan Lindgren, they don’t have any notable defenders in their farm system.
The defense needs to be as big of a priority, if not bigger, than the offense. If there are going to times to put the offense over the defense, it’s when a key difference maker is available for the Rangers to take.
For example, when Kakko (or the less likely case, if Hughes) is available, the Rangers need to jump on it. Another example is Artemi Panarin, and his rumored desire to be a Ranger. But as I said a few weeks ago, the Rangers need to be careful. If they are to sign him, it has to be to a contract that does not handicap the team.
If you look at the Bruins cap situation, they have no contracts that exceed $7.5 million. The Maple Leafs, however, will have two that exceed $11 million or more, Tavares and Matthews. Both players are spectacular, but big caps hit like that might make things difficult to keep and/or sign big free agents in the future.
Gorton must not fall for the same trap that hit the Maple Leafs. Toronto might be just one more big cap hit away from being unable to create an elite defensive core. Toronto has great talent up front. However, they won’t win a Cup with a defense that is OK, at best. Something they might have found out recently.
After knocking off the Leafs, the Bruins are the probable favorites to win the Eastern Conference with the Tampa Bay Lightning gone. They have consistent scoring power up front with a solid defense to help out when they don’t have puck possession.
That is the type of team that Gorton must create in New York. He needs to adopt the same mentality as Thanos did in Infinity War. Balance this roster. If it goes unchecked, future seasons will end in peril.
Of course, like the Mad Titan, Gorton might have to make some sacrifices for the sake of balancing the team on both ends. Thankfully, this doesn’t involve scavenging the cosmos for six stones that control different aspects of the universe so he can wipe out half it’s population. But even so, Gorton might have to send some guys on the front end packing in order to beef up the Rangers blue line.
Jeff Gorton has some tough choices to make in the future, but as Thanos would say, “The hardest choices require the strongest wills.”